Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Although akin to the naturalistic style of fiction emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, LIZA OF LAMBETH is not as relentlessly bleak as George Moore’s ESTHER WATERS or Theodore Dreiser’s SISTER CARRIE. Rather, the novel possesses a lightness of touch closest to the fiction of Guy de Maupassant, and W. Somerset Maugham has acknowledged that the book was modeled after the straightforward, realistic manner of Maupassant and was influenced by the socially conscious plays of Heinrick Ibsen. The novel presents an eloquent—if implied—picture of the need among the poor for birth control. The irony occasionally is heavy-handed, but the boisterous humor of the slum characters is usually amusing and always interesting. The scenes of the slum life of eighty years ago are vividly detailed.

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Liza is a girl of spirit with a strong, if untutored, native intelligence. She possesses a vague desire to better herself and would like to marry (since she can think of no other fate than marriage for herself) someone better than any of the men she knows. Her inarticulate dissatisfactions, however, have no outlet other than Jim, the married man down the block. She is cornered by her place in society and by convention. Without even understanding her own feelings, she plunges ahead, hoping for the best, but not expecting it.

The only joy the people in the novel have is in basic physical pleasures: dancing and singing, running and playing games, eating and drinking, and sex. Their pints of beer ease the aches and pains of everyday life, and their moments of lovemaking provide a brief escape into another world. Nevertheless, their pleasures necessarily are fleeting and are paid for with years of boredom and drudgery. It is their lusty humor that carries them along, helping them endure their gray lives. Maugham catches the essence of their humor as well as the taste of their brief gratifications with precision and economy. Their efforts to make life bearable are all the more poignant for the lack of moralizing on the part of the author.

The pressures of the group on the individual are dramatically presented. As much as Liza and Jim want to have their freedom and happiness, they are hedged in by the opinion of the neighborhood. Vere Street is the center of the world to Liza, and she cannot escape it, whatever she does.

The black humor of the closing scene, with Liza’s mother and the old midwife, Mrs. Hodges, guzzling brandy and whiskey and gossiping as Liza lies dying a few feet away, is chilling in its effectiveness and worthy of Dickens. Finally, nobody seems to be to blame for what happened. The incidents of life just piled together, and fate closed in on Liza. Unlike the Naturalist novelists, Maugham makes no plea for social reforms; he has simply presented a piece of life as directly and vividly as possible.

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